Pop Kelchner, Gentleman Jake, The Giant-Killer, and the Kane Mountaineers
This article was published in the Spring 2012 Baseball Research Journal.
Part I: The Great Glass Era
In the damp and chilly spring of 1907, at the height of the great glass era, an erudite professor of languages, a polite young first baseman and an eccentric left-handed pitcher came to the Hilltop in Kane, Pennsylvania to play professional baseball. While their time together as teammates would end before the summer was over, each of these storied baseball characters would leave an indelible mark on the National Pastime.
Charles S. Kelchner, a professor of languages and college athletics director, took a summer sojourn from Albright College in Myerstown to become player-coach of the Kane team. Modest Jake Daubert, a talented first baseman from Shamokin, signed on with the Class D Mountaineers of the Interstate League to escape a likely career in the coalmines of eastern Pennsylvania. Harry Coveleski, a raw and rather peculiar portside pitcher, also fled the hard-knock life of the hard coal region for the chance to play baseball on the Hilltop for Coach Kelchner.
The Kane Mountaineers professional baseball club was a byproduct of the prosperous time when glass was king on the Hilltop. When local business leaders leveraged the area’s ample workforce and seemingly endless supply of natural gas and high-grade limestone, The Kane Republican reported that the town earned repute as "the largest glass-producing center in the United States."
In 1907, when the trio of future baseball icons "Pop" Kelchner, "Gentleman Jake" Daubert and Harry "The Giant Killer" Coveleski came to Kane, professional baseball was far from a gentleman’s game, especially as it was played in the low minors. Betting on the games was out of control, and fans and players heaped verbal abuse on umpires while heckling relentlessly their foes from other teams. In DuBois an outfielder with the local Miners club, upset at being called out on strikes, bludgeoned the umpire to death in the batter’s box.
The rough-hewn Kane ballpark and grandstand were built on a flat piece of land between the Kane Flint and Bottle Company and the Standard Window Glass Plant, near the current site of the Kane Manufacturing Corporation and the Kane Commons. On the rare occasion in the spring of 1907 that the weather was pleasant, gritty shift workers streamed from the mills to take in a game. On Saturdays women turned out in droves, weather permitting, to catch a glimpse of the "dandies" in their fancy wool baseball suits.
With the backing of local business leaders, the Kane Mountaineers ball club first joined the Class D Interstate League in 1905. In addition to vying for a share of the town’s entertainment dollar, investors hoped that the team would help Kane’s growing work force ward off bouts of ennui.
Under the guidance of Coach C. A. Eichelberger in 1905, the Kane Mountaineers finished in fifth place, winning 40 games and losing 56. Barrel-chested slugger Duke Servatius was the lone bright spot on the club, winning the league’s batting crown with a .352 average.
According to the April 22 edition of The Sporting Life, the new Interstate League established clear financial requirements for member clubs, reporting "the salary limit was placed at $750 per month for each team. It was decided that each team would guarantee the visiting club the sum of $50 per game, with a rain guarantee of $25. On Saturdays and holidays the gate receipts will be divided by the home and visiting teams."
The 1906 Kane club, managed by James Collopy, won 58 and lost 58, finishing 12 games behind the Erie Fishermen, who for the season drew more than 100,000 fans to their home park.
But with Pop Kelchner at the helm and in the outfield, the 1907 Kane Mountaineers were primed for a winning campaign. And with future Brooklyn Dodger great Jake Daubert anchoring first base and budding star hurler Harry Coveleski spinning his fancy curves, the outlook was bright for the plucky Kane Mountaineers.
Part II: Gentleman Jake and the Giant Killer
Already known as a keen judge of talent, the 31-year-old Charlie Kelchner was one of the organizers of the Tri-State League in addition to having owned and managed the Lebanon, Pennsylvania club 1902–1905.1 In 1906 Kelchner was playing manager of the Milton team, before coming to Kane and the Interstate League in 1907. Despite living a comfortable life as a cultured college professor during the school year, in the summer months Kelchner was an incurable baseball enthusiast and intrepid ivory hunter, deep in the bushes.
One of Kelchner’s earliest and most important baseball finds was Jake Daubert, who batted .299 for Kane in 1907, while showing flashes of brilliance at the plate and as a first baseman. Named "Gentleman Jake" for his dapper dress and calm demeanor, Daubert was a heady ballplayer and a smart businessman during his long professional career.
Jacob Ellsworth Daubert started his working life in Shamokin at age 11 as a "breaker boy," sorting out coal from pieces of slate. He finally escaped the mines at age 21, playing semi-pro baseball for a team in Lykens. When Coach Charles Kelchner first laid eyes on Daubert, he stood out like a diamond in a slag heap.
As a young player, Jake Daubert was also an extremely fast runner, and a chop hitter; a combination that helped him leg out many infield hits during his career. In addition, Jake posted 22 triples in 1922, thanks to his speed and line-drive hitting, a twentieth-century major league record for a first baseman (Dave Orr had 31 in 1886). He was also the finest bunter of his time, and still holds the National League career record for the most sacrifice hits. Pop Kelchner’s first impression of Daubert back in 1907 was right on target.
Seven seasons removed from life in the mines and from his professional debut in Kane, Daubert led the National League in batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1913 and 1914, winning the Chalmers Award as the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1913. Daubert was also named to The Baseball Magazine All-American team seven times.
In addition to Jake Daubert, the other budding star on Kelchner’s 1907 Kane Mountaineers club was a young pitcher named Harry Coveleski. Also from Shamokin, Harry too spent his early years in the mines as a "donkey boy," helping mules haul coal wagons for $3.75 per week until sharp-eyed Pop spied Harry’s strong left arm. In fact, by the end of the 1907 season, Harry’s star had already ascended to the major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies.
And just a year after getting his professional start in Kane, Coveleski earned his immortal tag "The Giant Killer," when he beat the New York Giants three times in five days in 1908 while pitching for the Phillies. In baseball’s most furious pennant race in history, the Cubs, Pirates, and Giants battled from start to finish. At season’s end, Harry played the spoiler role, turning back the Giants with his fancy pitching by the scores of 7–0, 6–2, and 3–2, including a victory over baseball icon Christy Mathewson on Saturday, October 3.
According to a letter written in 1964 by Joe Sloan, managing editor of the Foreign Press Association, Harry’s personality was "ding dong."
I remember him telling me one night in his café of playing for Charley "Red" Dooin, manager of the Phillies. Harry, a lefthander, wound up with a man on first base. Naturally the guy stole second base easily. Red Dooin was so incensed that he walked into the pitcher’s box and asked Harry why he wound up with a man on first base. Harry said, "I forgot about him." Then Dooin called in all the fielders and the infielders around the pitchers mound. "Next time any man gets on first base with Coveleski pitching, I want every one of you players to yell and let Harry know because I don’t want any secrets on my team."2
Coveleski’s first taste of stardom was short-lived, however. This time, according to baseball lore, it was the Giants’ tenacious manager, the illustrious Hall-of-Famer John McGraw, who had the last laugh as the spoiler when his coaches and players ridiculed The Giant Killer into submission. According to newspaper reports, Tacks Ashenbach, a former manager of the Johnstown team in the Tri-State League, gave McGraw a magical antidote to defeat Harry Coveleski. "All you have to do is imitate a snare drum," he said.
"Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat," sounded the Giants bench incessantly in their first meeting with Harry and the Phillies in the 1909 season. According to newspaper reports, "The deadly chorus was kept up in volleys until the umpire stopped it, and even after that it continually broke out in sporadic outbursts whenever a player could get away with it. Even McGraw, while coaching at third base, made motions as if he were beating a snare drum." Though the Phils won that game 5–1, Coveleski would never win another game against the New York Nationals.
But only Ashenbach could explain why this odd tactic had such a devastating effect on Coveleski:
Harry was a coal miner back in Shamokin, and he got stuck on some Jane who was a nut on music. Everybody who was anybody played in the Silver Cornet Band on Thursday nights, and this girl told Harry that she couldn’t see him unless he broke in with the band. Having no talent for music, Coveleski picked out the snare drum as his victim and started to practice regularly. When the big concert came along, everything went all right until it came time for Coveleski to break in; he missed his signal entirely. But later when the leader waved for the violin solo, Coveleski came in strong on the snare drum. The result was that the bandmaster asked for waivers on Coveleski and the girl was not long in following suit. That snare drum incident has been the sore spot in his make-up ever since.
Although Harry’s famous brother, Hall-of-Fame pitcher Stanley, disputed the many apocryphal stories about his brother’s reported psychological flaws, Harry spent several seasons in the minors before finally resuming his major league career with the Detroit Tigers in 1914, where he won 65 games over the next three seasons. Harry’s 2.34 ERA is still the Tigers’ all-time career record.
While "Gentleman Jake" and "The Giant Killer" became baseball immortals, their time as teammates was fleeting in Kane. Harry Coveleski won four games and lost seven for the Mountaineers during the short summer of 1907 and Daubert played less than half a season in Kane. But for the rest of their lives both men would remember Kane Manager Pop Kelchner for helping them escape the brutish life of the coal mines.
Part III: The Short Season
When the 1907 Interstate League season opened on May 15, Pop Kelchner remained at Albright College to wrap up his professorial duties for the spring semester. He arrived in Kane on June 12, at the end of an unseasonably damp and chilly spring. Due to the lousy weather, business matters quickly went downhill for the Kane team and for the other unfortunate clubs of the Interstate League.
In his book entitled, Joe McCarthy: Architect of the Yankee Dynasty, author Alan Levy described the hard luck encountered by the teams of the Interstate loop in the spring of 1907:
Day after day rainouts occurred. One local paper described a steady pattern of ‘chilling air and glum skies.’ According to the Pittsburgh papers, ‘Every team in the Interstate League is losing money, with weather killing off games and attendance. By July 1, Erie was the only club in the circuit not in debt.’ Rainouts continued to frustrate the staging of games and promotion efforts. A Franklin Booster Day, for example, was rained out twice before it was finally held. On July 15, a desperate Franklin club announced a street fair, for the benefit of the team, with club officials admitting they needed to quickly raise $600. Umpires were not always paid. League games sometimes took place without them. By July 20, the clubs of Kane and Olean had disbanded.
Despite having a talented roster with a rising young manager in charge, the Kane Mountaineers could not overcome their lost gate receipts and faded away for good.
During the final season of professional baseball in Kane in 1907, future Hall-of-Fame manager Joe McCarthy, then a fuzzy-cheeked 20-year-old, batted .314 in 71 games for the rival Franklin Millionaires. While young "Marse" Joe soon found out that he was not big league material as a player, the future skipper of the Yankees would later coach Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio on his way to earning the highest career winning percentage of any manager in the history of the major leagues.
When the Kane Mountaineers folded on July 16, after winning only 17 of their 43 games, Jake Daubert was sold to the Marion, Ohio team, his first stop along the way to earning fame and popularity with the Dodgers, and Harry Coveleski would shuffle off for the summer to the independent Wildwood, New Jersey team, where he joined his brother John on the Ottens’ roster. According to the book, Deadball Stars of the American League, edited by David Jones, "His performance in New Jersey was impressive enough to catch the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies, who signed Coveleski to a $250 per month contract on September 3, 1907."
Pop Kelchner languished a few more years as a player and coach in the low minors and semi-pro leagues, including a two-year hitch as playing manager for nearby Clearfield of the Blue Ridge League. According to a letter written by Kelchner to The Sporting News in 1947, "During this period many players of note got their start and were developed under my management. This attracted the attention of major league owners with the result that I served as a scout during 1909, 1910 and 1911 for Connie Mack. I quit the game as a player in 1912." For the 1907 campaign, the last professional season in Kane, Kelchner hit a respectable .279, finishing third on the club in batting to Jake Daubert and Lavelle.
By this point in his career Kelchner had already earned his moniker, "Pop," as father figure, mentor, coach, and friend to a troupe of young ballplayers that would be forever known as "Pop’s Boys." When the Kane Mountaineers gave up the ghost, Kelchner resumed the epic baseball journey that earned him the mark as baseball’s "dean of scouts." He also served concurrently as athletic director and the chair of Latin and German at Albright until 1919. During this period Pop also found time to coach the college’s baseball, basketball, and football teams.
Sportswriter Tiny Parry in a September 23, 1958, article in the Lebanon Daily News, remembers Kelchner’s earliest days as a sports instructor, "Pop Kelchner’s college association that lasted actively through twenty years as head coach of all sports at Albright College, also won enduring friendships in the collegiate sports world. His familiar calls of encouragement to his charges, ‘Come on boys, you can do it,’ still rings in the ears of many old time fans."
According to a newspaper report from the February 3, 1955 edition of The Fresno Bee,
Kelchner well remembers his (Albright) football teams playing the Carlisle Indians, then coached by the late Pop Warner and starring the late Jim Thorpe. ‘I remember they beat us one game exactly 100 to 0. Touchdowns were scored as four points apiece then, so you can see Thorpe had a big day,’ Kelchner said. ‘I remember Thorpe kicking a high, long spiraling punt downfield, running down and catching it to retain possession of the ball. That was a bad day for us, but I also remember they beat us only 6 to 0 on another occasion.
With a burning passion for athletics, this learned and traveled professor, sportsman, and Christian gentleman made a lasting impact on his ballplayers in Kane in the summer of 1907. And when his baseball career finally ended more than fifty years later, Kelchner numbered among his closest friends Branch Rickey and Connie Mack, both of whom were in attendance in 1952 when Albright’s baseball diamond was named in his honor. In 1918, the modest "Dutchman," erstwhile skipper of the Kane Mountaineers, managed Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby on the same club in the Bethlehem Steel League, having arguably the game’s greatest left-handed hitter and the greatest right-handed hitter in the same lineup. Despite walking with the giants of the sport, Kelchner never forgot his humble roots in the low minors and the players that he personally signed and recommended for advancement; for all times they remained "Pop’s Boys."
Part IV: Dean of Scouts
When Pop Kelchner came to Kane in 1907 to coach in the Class D Interstate League, he was as out of place as a church deacon at a brothel. The game was played on a bumpy field with a lumpy tobacco-stained baseball and cheating was not only part of the sport, it was expected. Any player who did not try to take unfair advantage of his opponent became an easy mark for the other team. If college boys were exceedingly rare in the ranks of professional baseball in those days, finding a bright multi-lingual college professor, accomplished public speaker, and champion debater like Charles S. Kelchner deep down in the bushes was a one-in-a-million shot.
This loveable sage and baseball oddity spoke with a prominent Pennsylvania Dutch accent and was master of five languages. Newspaper writer Eugene F. Karst recounted a favorite story about how Pop once mystified an unsuspecting audience in St. Louis.
He spoke in a conglomeration of broken English, Pennsylvania Dutch and German, with occasional Greek and Latin phrases thrown in. His listeners thought it was natural and all of them tried to be as polite and interested as possible. Then at the height of their embarrassment, Kelchner burst forth into his flowery, fluent style of oratory and told them in the King’s English that he had just been kidding them.
With his knack for rhetoric and his keen eye for spotting baseball flair, Pop gained his first formal experience as a professional baseball talent hawk after the Kane club folded in 1907, when he went to work for Connie Mack and his Philadelphia A’s. The persuasive Professor Kelchner moved over to Robert Hedges’ St. Louis Browns in the American League in 1912, before going to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League in 1918, where he would remain for 40 years, a confidant to baseball’s "Mahatma," Branch Rickey.
In a 1954 press release, H. Ralph Mueth of the St. Louis Cardinals’ publicity office retold one of Pop’s favorite stories about managing Babe Ruth on the 1918 Lebanon team. According to Kelchner,
One morning Babe broke up a practice session with his fungo hitting. Every time he hit the ball it went out of the park with the result that we were soon without baseballs and practice for that morning had to cease. Later on I discovered that there were scores of his admirers outside the park to whom he had promised baseballs, and he chose this means of supplying them!
From 1900 to 1912, Kelchner developed over 30 players that went on to the major leagues. At the top of this list are Jake Daubert and Harry Coveleski, who were teammates on the Kane Mountaineers. Pop also signed pitcher Allan Sothoron during this period, a right-hander for the Browns and Indians. Future Yankees manager, pitcher Bob Shawkey, a native of Sigel, was also one of "Pop’s Boys." And it is said that it was Kelchner who recommended to Connie Mack and his Philadelphia A’s the talented Chippewa pitcher, Charles "Chief" Bender, a future Hall-of-Famer. During his long career with the Cardinals, Pop would also have a hand in signing the young sensation from Donora, Stan "The Man" Musial.
Among others, Pop found future Pittsburgh Pirates skipper Danny Murtaugh in Chester. Murtaugh was a 19-year-old second baseman when he signed on with the Cambridge, Maryland, Cardinals in 1937, but "The Whistling Irishman" is best remembered as the brilliant, if slightly narcoleptic, manager of the 1960 and 1971 world champion Pirates.
And future Pirates broadcaster Nellie King, whom Kelchner signed for the Cardinals in 1946, was also caught in Pop’s wide scouting net. "I can still hear his voice, the way he used to encourage us on the field. During practice he would holler ‘Yip, yip, yip. Yip, yip, yip.’ When he said that he meant let’s step it up out there; let’s get moving, boys."
Perhaps the best prospect signed by the venerable former manager of the Kane Mountaineers was Joseph "Ducky" Medwick. Also known as "Muscles" for his powerful build, this Hall-of-Famer from Carteret, New Jersey, made his debut with the Cardinals in 1932. Along the way Kelchner also signed another cornerstone of St. Louis’s Gashouse Gang, switch-hitting James "Ripper" Collins of Altoona.
Among the outstanding prospects that Pop recommended for hire that were passed over include Lefty Grove, Hack Wilson, Rabbit Maranville, and Mickey Cochrane, all of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown.
Ron Smiley, a rangy young shortstop from Old Forge, was the last in a line of the many hundreds of ballplayers in Kelchner’s over 50 years of scouting who are remembered as Pop’s Boys. "I was living in Reading at the time and Pop came by and asked me for a tryout. He said he wanted me to be his last prospect and I was thrilled to work out for him at Kelchner Field," says Smiley, now 76 years old. "What an honor. I even had my tryout on the field that was named for him."
He used to come by our house and have dinner with us then. Even though Pop was a giant in scouting and a friend to all of the bigshots of the game, it’s amazing how humble he was. During his career he was friends with Lefty Grove, Chief Bender, Connie Mack, Branch Rickey, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Medwick and so many others; the guy must have had more Hall-of-Fame contacts than any baseball man in history.
When Kelchner died in 1958, at the age of 83, Tiny Parry, a sportswriter with The Lebanon Daily News, honored his long career.
(Pop’s) direct association with the St. Louis Cardinals for four decades qualified him as both the dean of major league scouts in age and term of service. His personal life, exemplary habits, Christian beliefs and teachings were also outstanding facets of this lovable personality who graced the sports scene so long and so admirably. Pop Kelchner joins the ranks of the immortals because his conduct, his useful and purposeful life, his kindly deeds, friendly advice, cheery greetings and widespread wholesome influence are lasting monuments that will withstand time.
When The Sporting News published his obituary in September 1958, at the end of his long baseball odyssey, Pop was touted as "The Dean of Big Time Scouts." He had traveled more miles, bird-dogged more prospects, discovered more stars, made more friends in high places and dedicated more years of his life to hunting ivory than any baseball scout in history. From his humble beginings in the low minors and the backwoods of Pennsylvania, Pop touched all the bases in his storied career before he finally made his way back home again.
"Baseball sure could use a man like him today," says Ron Smiley.
With all the scandal and all of the controversy that baseball has had to endure, Pop Kelchner would be a positive influence on the game in every way. When the Hall of Fame is struggling every day to find a way to sort out the cheaters from the guys who played the game on the square, Pop deserves to be recognized for always standing tall and for preserving the integrity of the game. His day at the Hall of Fame will eventually arrive and all of the players, managers and owners associated with him will say ‘Welcome Pop, what took you so long?’
Part V: Ron Smiley’s Quest
Ron Smiley was the last prospect in a long line of ballplayers scouted by the former manager of the Kane Mountaineers, Pop Kelchner. A crackerjack shortstop from Mt. Penn High School, Smiley signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in September 1957.
Always a baseball devotee, when he retired from his marketing position at IBM in 2000, Smiley looked for a project that he could submit for publication to the Society for American Baseball Research. "That’s when I really began to dig into Pop’s legacy," he says.
To my surprise, the only information that I could find about Pop back then was that he was a professor of languages at Albright, and a scout for the Philadelphia A’s, St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals. His limited baseball dossier also said that he had signed Joe Medwick and Rip Collins. I really couldn’t believe that there was so little data available about this man who was truly a giant of the game.
He signed 60 future major leaguers at a time when scouts uncovered talent on their own, rather than just monitoring prospects like they do now in today’s vast scouting systems. He was a sophisticated college professor that spent his summers in the back alleys and backwoods in places like Kane and Clearfield hunting diamonds in the rough by his own unique methods," says Smiley. "And he dedicated more than 50 years of his life to professional baseball.
Kelchner, a 1967 honoree of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, was also inducted into Reading’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008, thanks to Ron Smiley’s efforts. According to a July 6, 2008, story in The Reading Eagle by sportswriter Mike Drago,
[Smiley] began researching Kelchner’s career, and then went on a letter-writing and promotional campaign that continues to this day. He has compiled a 60-page binder that includes every detail of Kelchner’s life and has sent it to dozens in the media and in baseball, including every member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors.
Having compiled boxes upon boxes of information about Kelchner in his almost ten years of research, Smiley admits to occasionally needing extra inspiration to continue waging what amounts to his own political war with Cooperstown’s "illuminati" to get Pop Kelchner his due. He says he holds very dear the many letters of support he receives from people like Max Silberman, the Vice-Chairman of the Philadelphia A’s Historical Society, and Roland Hemond, who now works for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As the last in the line of "Pop’s Boys," Ron Smiley fell short of making it big as a professional baseball player more than fifty years ago. That’s why he accepts the burden of getting Kelchner elected in the National Baseball Hall of Fame as his own personal quest. "Pop gave me my best chance in the game many years ago and it’s time to pay him back," Smiley says. Whether Smiley succeeds in finally earning Cooperstown’s attention for Pop or not, he knows that the former manager of the 1907 Kane Mountaineers, who was baseball’s immortal "Dean of Scouts," is smiling down upon him for his efforts. And like former Pirates broadcaster, the late Nellie King, Smiley occasionally heard Pop’s high-pitched voice, still imploring as he did generations of ballplayers from the sidelines with his cheers, "Yip, yip, yip."
Fifteen years ago, ED ROSE purchased a bargain book in High Point, North Carolina that revealed a clue that his beloved, tiny hometown of Kane, Pennsylvania had once hosted a professional baseball club named the Kane Mountaineers. Since then he has spent many weekends unlocking the long lost story. A career newspaperman, Ed is the operations director for the Southern Oregon Media Group based in the Southern Oregon Riviera, where he lives with his wife, Cheryl, and children, Ella and John. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he now spends his weekends writing his first novel, a baseball fantasy/homage called "Hidden Vigorish".